Al Gore Keeps the President Away From Panama

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Note to Panama: You'll find the keys under the flowerpot to the left of the front door... President Clinton and Madeleine Albright were conspicuous by their absence from Tuesday's formal ceremony transferring control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. to the host country. Clinton and Albright — who had previously indicated she would attend — drew the ire of Panamanian leaders by their absence, leaving leadership of the U.S. delegation to former president Jimmy Carter, who negotiated the handover 22 years ago.

The stayaway by senior White House officials may be a concession to domestic political concerns. The canal once symbolized America's ability to project its power abroad, and conservative Republicans have questioned the wisdom of giving it up. Some Republican legislators — and Pat Buchanan — have even used the fact that Hong Kong-based port company Hutchison Whampoa will manage the facility for Panama to suggest that the strategic waterway may fall under Chinese control in the event of a crisis. Even though that scenario is dismissed as far-fetched by Panamanians and most U.S. analysts, the White House is clearly taking no chances with Al Gore's election year looming. Indeed, Clinton appears to be more willing to sacrifice some Panamanian goodwill by snubbing the ceremony than to provide visuals for a Buchanan attack ad by showing up. Hey, Jimmy Carter made this deal, let him take the heat.